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Geoff Skinner:  

Geoff Skinner

Fly Tying and Synthetics

As a commercial fly tier I often find myself waist deep in discussion with
relation to the use of synthetics, in both fresh and saltwater fly tying. Having tied flies for some 25 years I have seen the rise and rise of synthetics. But from the time synthetics started appearing on our tying benches many a debate has occurred, and in my mind, no one is right, and no one is wrong. I feel it is all in the final outcome of what you are trying to achieve, and in most cases it is to “ match the hatch “.

Some years back I witnessed a rather heated conversation that took place in a tackle store between a young and eager shop assistant and an elderly chap, who was of the opinion that the use of synthetics in fly tying was sacrilege. As I recall the subject was, Hi-Vis verses calftail for winging. This discussion was fast turning ugly as abuse was hurled across the counter, with both sides trying to get me to adjudicate. All I could offer was to say that they were both right, and wrong. This suggestion seemed to enrage them even further. The exchange ended with the customer storming out of the shop mumbling something about using calftail when the shop assistant was still in nappies.

For many years now we have carried the tried and proven patterns in our fly boxes and these old chestnuts are equally as effective now, as when they were created. I often wonder as to what would have transpired if the “new generation” of materials had been available when these patterns evolved. The way I see it is that if one ties a Clouser Minnow, but instead replaces the traditional bucktail with streamer hair, a synthetic crinkle nylon, the fly is still a Clouser Minnow, not a new creation but a variation of the original. That’s not to say new patterns have not been borne out of synthetics, as many have, and ironically some have gone the full circle from being all synthetic originals, to all “natural material“ variations. This is why many adventurous fly tiers can see new chapters unfolding.

Synthetics hold many advantages over the traditional materials. They are generally more durable, there is a far greater choice of colours, textures and densities on offer, and most of all, they tend to absorb very little water. This has assisted in the creation of monster flies in excess of 30 cm in length, and with a degree of skill, these can still be cast with relative ease. If you are into spinning wool heads and bodies for those 3-D sub surface baitfish patterns, you will no doubt be aware that on the water they tend to feel like casting something along the lines of a wet sock. Try substituting the wool for a synthetic of a similar nature such as Hi-Vis, adopting the same spinning technique as for wool. You will instantly notice the difference in casting this variation, compared to the traditional spun wool pattern.


Super Hair makes an excellent substitute for bucktail on some patterns and is available in some 25 colours. Some advantages of this and similar products are that it is available in long hanks for large flies, it is incredibly strong and durable, it is easily blended with other colours, and under water it takes on a semi translucent appearance, similar to some baitfish. The only downside I find with Super Hair is that it can be savage on scissors. So keep your cardio-vascular surgeon’s scissors in the drawer. If you want tough baitfish imitations this is the way to go.


Material such as Super Hair needs to be locked down as it compresses very little when tied in. To do this, measure the length you need, tie down the hair with several wraps in the normal fashion, then fold back the tag ends and tie down again. This effectively locks the fibres in place. If several applications are required, a pre-measured tag end actually forms another layer as it is folded back. This process can be repeated creeping forward as you go. If you fail to lock down the fibres and a few pull free, it will create a small cavity in the body of the fly at the tie in point, allowing the remaining fibres to work free with gradual ease.


Flash may be tied in place using the same technique as described above. When tying in material such as red Crystal Flash, to represent gills at the throat of the fly, try looping the strands of Crystal Flash required around the thread, then pull the thread taut and slide the Flash down the thread with your free hand, lock in place with a few turns of thread. This method allows you to place the Flash exactly where you want it, without clumsy fingers getting in the way, and if measured right there will be no need for trimming.


Synthetics will never replace natural materials such as deer hair, saddle feathers, marabou or the humble peacock herl to name just a few, but by combining these old faithfuls with the new generation synthetics and some imagination, you can come up with some interesting concepts and variations. So the next time you are in a creative mood have a close look as to what is available, and then let your mind's eye take over. You may be pleasantly surprised with the final outcome. Happy Tying


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